It was a treat to be invited to review this concert; although familiar with the Mahler 2 from recordings, we had never heard it performed live. It proved to be an outstanding achievement for the large forces of the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Bach Choir, with admirable soloists. A huge logistical and musical task for the orchestra’s 90th anniversary year, it was triumphantly realised. Although both orchestra and choir are non-professional groups, their approach and performance were eminently professional, while Prakhoff’s conducting was clear, controlled and expressive. Mahler’s orchestration pushes the boundaries and conductor and performers rose marvellously to the occasion.
Despite Mahler’s self-professed dislike of “program music”, it has been argued by scholars that the symphony is indeed programmatic, with Mahler writing to a friend in 1896, a year after the first performance, that its theme was captured in the questions “Why did you live? Why did you suffer? We must answer these questions in some way … this answer I give in the final movement”. He further explained each of the five movements in program notes written for a performance five years later, and it was helpful to have this background before attending the Zelman Symphony performance, to bring to it Mahler’s own ideas about the intended significance of the emotions evoked throughout the symphony.
In the first movement, which Mahler titled “Totenfeier”, we hear an extended funeral march for “the hero of my D major symphony” (his first, written in 1888). The opening from the double basses sombrely set the scene, with thrilling entries from brass and percussion – but this was only a taste of what was to come! The horns provided a fabulous unison sound, and ominous basses and low horns at the recap of the funeral march led us inexorably towards the grave. Dynamics ranged from bravura full orchestral sound to lovely soft lyrical passages, especially in the winds and harps – although an unusual placement, it was a good move to have the two harps in the middle in front of the conductor. On the minus side, the strings were not always in tight unison in the very fast runs (but understandable with so many players in a non-professional group). With trumpets and trombones facing directly to us at stage level from the centre of the stage, they were a tad “in our face”, occasionally overpowering the strings who, lower, were spread across the auditorium floor.
All Zelman players can take bows, but special bouquets to the principal oboe and trumpet. Mind you, the legendary critic Neville Cardus made the point that each instrumentalist in the orchestra should be an accomplished soloist because “Mahler’s scoring frequently exposes a player”. As a member of the old Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra once said to Cardus, “Sometimes when one is playing in a Mahler composition one feels naked”. Everyone in the orchestra had their chance to be a soloist, and to play really loudly, really softly, and everything in between, and they accomplished this with great success.
At the end of the first movement, as Mahler himself had suggested and is customary, there was a short break, well-judged and giving everyone a breather before the rigours of the next four movements.
As Graham Abbott said in his program notes, Mahler depicted the second movement in terms of a happy moment in the hero’s life, but also “a sad recollection of youth and lost innocence”, and indeed the contrast was captured well in this gentler section. Although the strings were again a little muddy in some of the running figures, the wistful Ländler waltz made me smile, so happiness was there. There was a particular moment of real beauty when quiet pizzicato strings accompanied flute and harp.
The startling huge timpani opening of the third movement reminds us that we’ve returned to the rather more frightening and busy real world. The movement is based on Mahler’s own setting of the “St Anthony of Padua preaches to the fishes” from his Das Knaben Wunderhorn and all parts joined in exuberantly with the tricky runs (successfully doing these fiendish figures on the double bass especially was a credit to the eight of them). It was fun to listen to the folky references too – high clarinets with evocations of Jewish klezmers reminded us of Mahler’s use of popular forms. The orchestra then led us into darker territory – Mahler’s description was that “this ever-moving, never-resting, never-comprehensible bustle of existence becomes horrible … life strikes you as meaningless …”. One sensed rising anger and foreboding, culminating in a shriek of despair. Or as Mahler put it: a cry of disgust. When this finale came, the triple forte was so loud that I didn’t actually register the huge dissonance between the high Bb minor chord against a low C chord. Prakhoff brought about the big changes in tempi and dynamic with confidence and clarity.
In the fourth movement Belinda Paterson pleaded beautifully and softly for release from all the woes of the world. Another of the simple verses from the German folk songs of Das Knaben Wunderhorn that inspired Mahler’s song cycle, it was given more painful yearning by the glorious playing of oboist Rachel Bullen. Paterson sang with a lovely tone and just enough voice power to rise above the orchestral accompaniment.
The fifth movement was a monumental finale. There is so much going on here surrounding the march of the dead towards eternity: orchestral recitatives; a rowdy brass band procession; a Great Summons of mighty trumpets and trombones; apocalyptic interruptions from another brass band and percussion positioned outside the hall in the Collins Street foyer; timpani, and an army of other percussion (but no church bells?). The offstage horns blazing along with the rest of the orchestra made for an absolute surround-sound as if one were in the middle of a wonderful universal apotheosis. Stirring, uplifting and hopeful emotions were evoked as the various themes were recapitulated and new ones came into view. The six percussionists worked mightily and the brass never wavered. Snatches of the Dies Irae theme still struck terror as you wonder how this will end. The frantic strings lost ensemble a little, but Prakhoff kept full command. There was a moment of great beauty when the flute becomes a nightingale – a moment of the real world of nature, trills fluttering while distantly we hear the brass in the foyer proclaiming an other-worldly Last Judgment.
Finally, the chorus (who had sat concentrated and focussed for the previous hour or more) made a hushed and beautifully tuned entry, and we were bathed in light and warmth, further enhanced when soprano Anna-Louise Cole soared above all, then joined by Paterson. An all encompassing, cosmic feeling was generated. The choir was exemplary, with lovely balance and tone. But the full glory of resurrection and the next world was yet to be fully revealed. I have never heard a bigger fuller richer sound in the Town Hall! Calvin Bowman joined the orchestral forces on the mighty Melbourne Town Hall organ to bring the symphony to a climax. The instrumentalists gave their all, with wonderful high notes from the brass section. As foretold in the symphony’s title, the closing was full of joyful expectation of resurrection.
In conclusion, the performance was moving and satisfying, a laudable way to celebrate the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra’s 90th anniversary. It was great to see how well-attended it was, with the hall almost full. It was also good to see families there, with the occasional crying baby courteously removed by a parent.
Photo credit 2023 RXAphotography.
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed “The Resurrection”, Mahler Symphony No.2 in C minor, presented by Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra at the Melbourne Town Hall on September 10, 2023.